The Climax Of Pure Choral Music
( Originally Published 1923 )
THE only way to get a true idea of the nature and value of the music of any period, school or composer, is to hear plenty of it, and then (consciously and subconsciously) to generalize from what one has heard. Fortunately, it is today not difficult to find opportunities of hearing the choral music of the sixteenth century. Some Service Music may be heard in churches, Madrigals are often included in the programmes of choral societies, and the Gramophone already records a certain number of representative pieces, Choral and Key-board.
An Example Analysed
We will take as a typical example of the choral music of the period the Missa Aeterna Christi Munera of Palestrina. We can buy a copy of this for about a shilling (Chester), and can also buy a Gramophone Record of it, as sung by the choir of Westminster Cathedral under Sir Richard R. Terry. With these in his hands the reader will be able to get a very fair grasp of the principles of sixteenth-century choral music, and even without them, by the help of the description that follows, he will, I hope, get a fair general notion.
The Music of the Mass
The services of the Roman Church were originally sung to Plainsong. Then, as choral music gradually became common, certain parts of the Mass were set in three, four, or more parts for Choirs, the intervening parts for priest and assistants being left in the traditional Plainsong. The sections here chorally set by Palestrina are as follows :
Sanctus, Benedictus and Hosanna
(The Benedictus and Hosanna are really parts of the Sanctus, but are here set as three separate pieces.)
(Set in two portions, of which only the second is included in the Record.)
In accordance with the terms of a reform instituted by the Church at this period, Palestrina has set each piece without verbal repetitions. Roughly speaking, each of his four voices (three in the Benedictus, five in the Agnus) gives out the words once and once only. There is, then, no undue development of a theme, and consequent repetition of words, for purely musical purposes. The music is to be primarily liturgical, but within these limits Palestrina will naturally wish to make it as expressive as possible.
The Composer's Problem
Artistically the problem before the composer (or one of the problems) is, whilst providing the words with a straightforward musical setting, at the same time to suggest a feeling of musical unity. He achieves this by means of a comparatively small number of musical themes, which are varied in rhythm whilst maintaining (roughly at any rate) their melodic shape.
Here is a contrapuntal growth from a very simple melodic germ, which, at different pitches, makes its appearance in every one of the four parts—note the tendency to repeat the ` germ' at the interval of the fifth, and recall one practical reason for this
Out of a comparatively small amount of material, then, Palestrina has woven his fabric ( woven' is the word, surely, for this kind of music, which consists of the intertwining of a fixed number of strands). And as he weaves he is producing a ` woof' as well as a ` warp'. Looked at as warp the composition is a horizontal combination of melodies ; looked at as woof it is a perpendicular collection of chords. The composer necessarily has both aspects in mind as he pens his piece, but the horizontal (or `warp') aspect is probably uppermost with him.
Such music as this we speak of as `Contrapuntal' or as ` in Counterpoint'. The ` woof' (= perpendicular, i. e. ` Harmonic') element is there, but is less observable than the ` warp' (= horizontal, i.e. `Contrapuntal'). A moment's thought will show that all Contrapuntal music must be also Harmonic, and a second moment's thought that not all Harmonic music need be Contrapuntal.
Counterpoint, as we find it in Palestrina and Byrd (i. e. after a thousand years of development), is a highly sophisticated form of art, but it has all grown out of the traditional Plain-song, which, in its turn, has grown out of the natural inflections of spoken language.
After a little observation a rhythmic peculiarity comes to light. Sing over the various parts in a flexible sort of way. Then regard their combination. It will be felt that the accentuation of the various voices conflicts a good deal, one voice with another. There is no carefully provided simultaneous pressure on the first of the bar ; indeed, the interactions of the voices tend strongly to destroy this effect. A Salvation Army drummer would, indeed, hardly know where to deliver his blow. We cannot say that this is un-rhythmic music, but the rhythm is certainly rendered very complex to the ear by the freedom of accentuation of the parts, and as a matter of fact the bar-lines you see in the music are but a recent addition, designed to keep together modern singers who are used to such guidance.
Now plain rhythm represents the dance element in music, and here that element is banished. The spirit triumphs over the carnal, if you like, and a feeling of aloofness is conveyed, tending to the awe of mysticism. This is typical of the sacred music of the period (and even of some of the secular). The dance element, as we shall see, was very powerful in music at every period, but from the purer forms of choralism, and especially of sacred choralism, it was banned.
Three Kinds of Madrigal
Here is a secular piece,. a Madrigal of the period (Byrd's Lullaby, my sweet little Baby), which shows much the same general characteristics, save that, in keeping with its subject, it naturally has a little cradle swing about it.
That is barely distinguishable in style from the sacred music. It is in Counterpoint, with the Harmony as a secondary element. Here, however, is a brighter, quicker, more rhythmic piece (Weelkes' On the Plains, Fairy Trains), in which the Harmonic element naturally comes into more prominence.
That also is primarily Harmonic and Melodic and only secondarily Contrapuntal, though the Contrapuntal enters more frequently later in the piece, in a fa-la refrain.
All the music mentioned so far in this chapter can be obtained in the form of Gramophone records, and the reader is advised to take the opportunity of hearing as much of it as possible, training himself to follow the `parts', and so adding to his understanding—and consequently to his pleasure. There is no real understanding of the history of music without the hearing of much music of the various periods, schools and composers, and one point that will have become abundantly clear from the study of these few examples of sixteenth-century choral music is its variety. Here, within the Madrigal form, are three fairly distinct styles
(1) The Madrigal proper—very ` contrapuntal ', and making its effect a good deal by its ' points of imitation' (i. e. one voice taking up some little theme from another voice). It lacks a melody, yet is every bit melody—melody in the alto, the tenor and the bass, as well as melody in the treble. You may hear some ignorant or unthinking person speak of something of Palestrina or of Byrd or of one of their contemporaries as lacking in melody. And, generally speaking, it does lack one quite outstanding song-tune, such as this person would call a ' melody'. But herein is a paradox : this unmelodic music is all-melodic music.
(2) The Ayre, a sort of solo song with choral accompaniment—to exaggerate slightly.
(3) The Ballet, a choral dance.
It should be mentioned that the original intention in these pieces was that they should be performed with one voice to a part (a choral string-quartet or quintet rather than a choral orchestra, so to speak), and so performed they are heard in the gramophonic performances mentioned.
The Spirit of the Music
What is the spirit of the sixteenth-century choral music ? The sacred music is often aloof, but not cold. It represents the feeling of an age of faith. There were at that time sceptical coteries, and there were popes and princes of the church who were ` no better than they should be'. But to Palestrina and Byrd and their fellows the spiritual thought they set must surely have been spiritual truth. They meant what they sang. They believed in heaven and saw it—clearly, though very far off. Much of their music is serene, remote, mystical, with all human emotion wiped out save that of rapt devotion. As for the Madrigals, there are some that sing of love, as Dante sang of Beatrice, in almost a religious way, the music in this matter sometimes transcending its words. And there are others that are fanciful and light-hearted, where the music well accords with the ingenious trivialities of the age of euphuism).
Popular Music of the Period
This music so far discussed was music for the performance of churchmen on the one hand, and of the aristocratic cultured laymen on the other. There was another choral music for the man in the street and the man in the lane—the simple contrapuntal amusements, the `canons' or catches of which one, universally known even today, will serve as an example—Three Blind Mice. And, when in church, this man (in Protestant England, at any rate, and just as much in Protestant Germany) was delighted to have at last a part in the service—in the metrical psalm-tune (in Germany the hymn also). The age we are discussing was a musical age, and musical culture seems to have been more widespread then than at present. Yet probably to a tradesman of the Rialto or of Gutter Lane a full-blown Madrigal was as a String Quartet to many simple people today. His untrained ear would hardly follow its involutions.